East-bound, the Crowsnest Highway lances into the heart of Creston as North-West Boulevard. At the grain elevators it angles left and cuts east through the downtown as Canyon Street where, in two or three blocks of one- and two-storey boom-town buildings, the town carries on most of its commercial enterprise. Taking their cue from the two hotels and the newly renovated Tivoli Theatre, many of these 1930-ish wood-framed structures strive with some success to appear art-deco.
Scotties campground, centrally located under a retired orchard on Erickson Street on the south side of town is not the only place in Creston to stay. There must be a dozen motels bordering the Highway east and west, as well as the modestly priced City Centre Motel on Fifteenth Avenue. Holding down a lot on the north side of Canyon Street since 1946, the concrete two-storeyd Kootenay Hotel relies on its bar and dining room and is not interested in renting rooms. A block east of the Kootenay stands the substantial two-storeyd concrete box of the Creston Hotel, circa 1935. Retaining its spacious lobby and breast-high walnut reception desk through the recent round of renovations, the place looks inviting. East of town there are at least two other campgrounds; the Kozy Tent and Trailer, and Littlejoes.
Creston suns itself on a terrace on the right flank of the lower reach of the Upper Kootenay River valley overlooking the Rivers long delta, the Flats, at the south end of Kootenay Lake. In a previous age, Ktunaxa paddled their distinctive sturgeon-nosed canoesbow and stern lines curving outward and down from the junction of the gunwalesacross the flooded Flats, harvesting wild rice, one of the staples of their diet. Springs runoff extended the Lake twenty miles up the Rivers valley, leaving the Flats a quagmire of soggy silt smothered in bracken and carved into shifting islands by the debris choked channels of the unravelled River.
Navigating these channels in the spring of 1808 came the North West Companys David Thompson and his men, looking for the great river of the west. The party saw the Lake, consulted with the local Ktunaxa and returned up the River. Seldom in the next two generations did a Ktunaxa see another white-skinned man until David McLoughlin arrived sometime in the 1850s to marry a Ktunaxa daughter and establish the short-lived Fort Flatbow for the HBC above the flood plain near Duck Lake at the tip of Kootenay Lake. Life carried on in its immemorial way until gold was discovered in the sands of Wild Horse Creek in the East Kootenays in the autumn of 1864. Likely the following spring, to aid the hopefuls rushing up the Walla Walla Trail to the new bonanza, Edwin Bonner established his ferry across the Kootenai River some 25 miles up-stream from the Boundary. A small community began to grow. Eager to serve the miners that were congregating at Wild Horse, the merchants on the B.C. coast prevailed upon the colonial government to contract Edgar Dewdney to extend his trail eastward from its 1861 terminus at Rock Creek. Road building here in the Upper Kootenays valley was a hell and the seeming delight the River took in washing away Mans labours nearly drove Dewdney to distraction. He opted to employ a reaction ferry to cross the main channel, pitching short spans across streams and ponds and corduroying the approaches in a vain attempt to keep travellers out of the sucking mud. HBC money reputedly paid for this infrastructure and the Coys sometime employee, David McLoughlin, won the contract to operate the ferry. The yearly task of rebuilding in the wake of the annual floods, suggests R. Cole Harris in Moving Amid the Mountains in BC Studies No. 58 (Summer, 1983), proved to be the telling argument in convincing the colonial government to stop spending some $1,400 a year maintaining this little used portion of the Trail east of the Columbia.
Though McLoughlin lived in the area for some years, tending his garden and raising his children, he saw no need to legally acquire land. Therefore, when he registered a pre-emption on 320-acres of east bench land just north of the Boundary on September 19, 1878, George Wallace Hall became the first official Caucasian settler in the Creston area. A good farmer, Halls grain crops grew and he built a mill to grind flour. For fun, its rumoured, he also constructed a distillery.
Writes E.L. Affleck in Kootenay Lake Chronicles, in December of 1881 the rails of the Northern Pacific Railroad reached Pend Oreille Lake, some 30 miles south of Bonners Ferry, opening the Kootenay country to adventurers and hunters and prospectors. By the following spring a steady stream of explorers were wandering down the River; among the first was a loose-footed, 31 year old English gentleman adventurer-writer-entrepreneur, William Adolph Baillie-Grohman.
The Big Plans of Bill Baillie-Grohman
The intersection of ancient Aboriginal paths patrolling the Kootenay valleys eastern slope and its tributary, the Goat River valley, created a casual campground around the present site of Creston. It was here that Baillie-Grohman, pitched his tent in the summer of 1882. A few weeks earlier, B-G had got off a ship in New Yorks harbour, boarded a train heading west and a few days later stepped off at the Northern Pacifics end-of-steel at Pend Oreille Lake. According to P.A. Dunae in Gentlemen Emigrants (Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, 1981), B-G had hooked up with his pal, Teddy Roosevelt, somewhere along the way, and from the end of steel the pair began walking towards the trophy Rocky Mountain goat that they hoped awaited their bullets in the Slocan Mountains. Coming down the lower reach of the Upper Kootenay River from Ed. Bonners establishment, the hunters passed near the site of Creston. Eyes ever watchful for economic opportunity, the enormous agricultural potential of the Flats was to Baillie-Grohman obvious. When rescued from their floods, the Flats would be an agricultural gold-mine, the produce finding ready market as the rough country opened up to miners and loggers. Exploring the region, B-G concluded that by blowing away the top few feet of the natural dam which impounded Kootenay Lakes West ArmGrohman Narrows, just west of todays Nelsonhe could lower the Lake enough to drain the Flats and spare them from the worst of their annual drowning. Thus prepared, the land could be colonized by farmers.
How much damage he inflicted upon the Slocan goat population is unremembered, but the spring of 1883 found B-G in Victoria promoting his agricultural scheme. He so impressed premier William Smithes administration that it made him a Justice of the Peace for the Electoral District of Kootenay on July 12th, 1883, and sent him out to impose the law while it mulled over his proposal. A month or two later, while pursuing his Orionic pleasures in the Rocky Mountain Trench, B-G noticed the abandoned efforts of gold miners who, during the Wild Horse Creek gold rush of 1864-65, perceived that the headwaters of the Upper Kootenay could be diverted into the Columbia drainage system by a 2,000 yard long canal across what David Thompson called McGillivrays Portage, known now as Canal Flats. Reasoning that diverting the Kootenays headwaters the would gain them access to the gold in the Rivers bed, they set to work. Why they quit; who knows, but when he saw the evidence of their labours nearly 20 years later, B-G immediately appreciated a completed canal would drastically reduce the Kootenays flow and enable the reclamation of even more of the Kootenay Lake lowlands. Fired by this idea, B-G hurried to Victoria to amend his proposal, contending that a three-pronged programme would ensure success: the outlet dam would be blown away, the headwaters of the Kootenay diverted and the main River channel dyked through the Creston Flats. Gilbert Malcolm Sproat and Arthur Stanhope Farwell, who had investigated the merits of the plan that summer, backed B-G, with whom they had ventured for 13 months. With the proviso that he float a steamboat on Kootenay Lake, the province countenanced his original scheme on December 10th of 1883, granting a ten year lease on 47,500 acres divided between tracts at both ends of Kootenay Lake. With the concession in hand, Baillie-Grohman awayd to his friends and family in England to raise funds.
The next summer he returned to wrestle the little Midgewhich, creatively, he would import into Canada duty-free as an agricultural implementfrom the Northern Pacific mainline over the Pack River Pass on the Walla Walla Trail to Bonners Ferry. Under the command of Arthur Burroughs Fenwick the Midge sailed down the Kootenay River and Lake to the West Arms outlet at Grohman Narrows where B-Gs engineer, Leslie Hall, set about the destruction of the obstructing rock. He was not successful, the rock suffering little from the amount of explosive that Hall was able to detonate against it. Though B-G contracted Harry Selous and Fred Lewis to attack the Narrows in 1889, it wasnt until the 1930s, when the West Kootenay Power and Light Company determined to increase the water flow to their Lower Kootenay generating stations, that the stubborn rock at the Narrows yielded.
His failure at the Narrows didnt discourage B-G: he was convinced that the diversion of the Upper Kootenay would by itself drain the Flats. Again in England to raise capital, B-G incorporated the Kootenay Lake Syndicate Company on May 18th, 1885. Returning to Victoria, Grohman concluded the final agreement with the provincial administration on that September 7th. The province granted the Syndicate 73,100 acres of land in several blocks sprinkled along the Kootenay shores. Additionally given was a pre-emption on a strip of 2,000 acres between the Upper Kootenay River and Columbia Lake across which the canal would run. As well, the public purse would reimburse the investors one dollar for every acre of land settled by the colonists that the Syndicate undertook to bring in. In return, B-G and company were to have a minimum of £50,000 in their coffers, of which they were to spend at least $25,000 in B.C. The canal would be a navigable 45 feet wide by ten deep, and a steamboat would be floated on the Upper Columbia. The only other proviso outside of a set time-frame for completion, was the approval of the Federal government, under whose purview fell waterways and all modifications to them. Not waiting for this final approval, B-G made his way to a miserable little collection of hovels styling itself Golden Citynow, Goldenon the nearly completed CPR Mainline in the upper Columbia valley. There he had a Manitoba steam plough boiler, an engine mated to an old barge, hung a paddle-wheel on the stern and launched it as the Clive. Captained by Jack Hayes, the Clives first duty was to deliver a portable sawmill to Canal Flats. There, with 200 labourers, Baillie-Grohman got to work.
As Mabel E. Jordan points out in her essay The Kootenay Reclamation and Colonization Scheme and William Adolph Baillie-Grohman (B.C. Historical Quarterly, Volume XX, 1956), the Law decreed that the details of works of this magnitude be publicly posted. Dating it November 3rd, 1885, B-G prepared a circular and had it distributed around the District. When it was nailed up in Golden City the denizens thereof raised a hue and cry. In a letter to their Member of Parliament in Ottawa on the following March 6th, they worried that, were the Kootenays headwaters dumped into the Columbia, the raised level of the latter would damage public lands, ruin riverside hay pastures, discourage settlers, destroy timber and impede the construction of a road in the valley. Legitimate concerns, to be sure, but they would likely have been insignificant when compared to the greater benefit that B-Gs reclamation scheme would have realized on Kootenay Lake. However, when the CPR complained that a raised Columbia could possibly endanger a short section of its Mainline, Ottawa flew to the aid of its darling corporation and commanded that B-G insert a lock in his Canal to prevent excess water pouring into the Columbia. As he had not been able to open West Arms outlet appreciably, the success of B-Gs plan hinged on the unimpeded diversion of the Kootenay. Without the diversion, the Flats would remain subject to their age old vernal inundation.
Running out of time and money and well advanced in the excavation of his canal, Baillie-Grohman presented himself in Victoria to tell his sad tale. Still a believer in the project, the province agreed to review the agreement and on October 30th, 1886, extended B-Gs time limit and made him a grant of 30,000 acres of Kootenay valley land to be awarded upon the canals completion. To England again went B-G, formed the Kootenay Valleys Company, Limited, in April of 1887, transferred considerable of his personal wealth into it and raised additional capital, and was back hard at work on Canal Flats that summer. Installing the lock was a heartbreaker; shifting sand and seepage slowed work and, even in an era of declining labour costs, had succeeded in doubling the canals original estimated price by the time B-G declared it complete on July 29th, 1889.
Grohmans plan was a bust. At spring flood on the Kootenay, when diversion of its waters would have benefited B-G the most, Ottawa ordered the lock closed. Records indicate that only two boats ever passed through: the Gwendoline southbound in May of 1894 and the North Star northbound on July 1st, 1902, both captained by Francis Patrick Armstrong. Soon after the Gwendoline went through, the deluge of that June damaged the lock and canal so that on his voyage eight years later Armstrong found it necessary to dynamite the lock to get the North Star through. Later, the federal government spent $2,500 in-filling part of the canal to ensure that the two rivers remained separated.
Though ensnared in red tape, B-G soldiered on, setting Selous and Lewis to widening the Narrows, arguing in court with the Federal government for control of his canal, doing what he could to make at least some of his reserve habitable for his slowly arriving settlers. His companies, however, had run out of capital and his aristocratic acquaintances back Home had had enough of Bills pie-in-the-sky schemes. Kootenay Valleys Company sought to recoup at least some of its principals capital by selling the rights to 40,000 acres of the Kootenay Flats to another English-owned outfit, the Alberta and British Columbia Exploration Company Limited (A&BCE), which Forbes George Vernon, et al, had incorporated in Victoria on April 22nd, 1891. The last straw came for Baillie-Grohman in the spring of 1894. His dreams drowning in bureaucracy, he returned to Victoria to find that his lawyer had absconded with his clients entrusted funds. Enough: B-G repaired Home and launched a lawsuit to recover his investment, an action still before the courts when he died in 1921.
Crestons Early Pioneers
The regions first Customs Collector, John Charles Rykert, and his wife, Ella née Wells, had been at the post they built on the Upper Kootenay River some nine miles upstream from the site of Creston for about a year when folklore maintains that the first settlers arrived in the area sometime in 1884. Supposedly imported by Baillie-Grohman to effect his ambitious reclamation plan, they would have been poor British peasants conscripted for their talents in husbandry. They are credited with planting the Kootenays first orchards on lands they cleared on the slopes around what is now the Town of Creston. They did not pre-empt any lands, and where they went when it became evident that Grohmans scheme was a bust is yet undiscovered.
J.C. Rykert pre-empted the 320 acres just north of the Boundary that would become Lot 252 on August 23, 1887. Joining the Rykerts that year was Michael Driscoll who built a saloon/hotel on the American side called Barnard to serve the steady stream of travellers who were voyaging the River by then. With the introduction of Kootenay Mining and Smelting Companys Galena in 1888, custom on the River increased significantly and the Boundary community became Ockonook. Old David McLoughlin began casually schooling the local children in the early 90s, turning over his students to Agnes McKays formal classes in 1896. In 1892 Major J.I. Barnes opened a general store and, five years later, A.P. Whitney built a hotel. After the U.S. government posted Chas. P. (Chippy) Hill there, in 1900 Ockonook became Porthill.
The first pre-emption, writes H.E. (Helena) White in Sixty Bloomin Years: A History of Creston, British Columbia (Creston Valley Chamber of Commerce, 1974, 1984), on Crestons townsite was recorded on April 19th, 1891, when John Wilson Dow filed claim to Lot 524, 160 acres now split by the Railways right-of-way and hosting the northern portion of todays Town. White suggests that as Dow was an ex-CPR survey crewman, he might have chosen his property with a skilled eye as what a good right-of-way looked like, with the belief that, sooner or later, a line of railroad was bound to be built into the West Kootenays. The next day Fred. G. Little pre-empted the adjacent lot 525, comprising now the heart of Creston, and on October 25th of the next year, John Arrowsmith took up lot 526, now subdivided into the south-western corner of Town, below the tracks. Around that time, William Rodger and Jane Huscroft arrived with their large family and cattle herd and squatted on the Flats, on lands dedicated to Baillie-Grohmans reclamation project.
The directors of Baillie-Grohmans Kootenay Valleys Company had transferred tenuous title to 7700 acres of Creston FlatsLot 774to the Alberta and British Columbia Exploration Company (A&BCE) which by 1891 was controlled by Geo. P. Alexander. That year A&BCE received federal permission to confine the River and build its Kootenay Reclamation Farm. As plans were being finalized and finances organized, the settlement that would become Creston was growing on the edge of the Flats as Joseph Anderson, W. Foster, W. McLeod, Wm. P. Sloan, John Spratt, Charles French, Albert Jefferson and J. Sullivan settled in. Frequent callers were the Columbia and Kootenay Steam Navigation Companys new Nelson which fumed by on its twice weekly run between Nelson and Bonners Ferry. The little steam launch, Albert, stopped often, as did the re-floated Midge under the command of Thomas Jones Davis.
It took Alberta and B.C. Exploration a year to organize its plans, and in the spring of 1893, under the direction of Fred. Little and Geo. A. Keffer, crews began dyking the River, finishing the project that autumn. Unfortunately, the record snow-packs accumulated over the following winter melted quickly in the spring of 1894, the heavy run-off testing the new works to their limits. On Sunday, June 3rd, just when the strain was the greatest, the storied Kootenay cyclone struck at around 4:00 in the afternoon, enraging the waters, destroying the dykes. In the aftermath of the disaster the A&BCE encouraged its people to resettle on the valleys bench and, in partnership with the Kootenay Valley Power and Development Company Limited, began reconstruction of the dykes, making enough progress that the company received patents for the 7,700 acres in November of 1894. In the spring of the next year crops were sown on the Flats. Just as Baillie-Grohman had expected, yields were remarkable, but the land didnt attract buyers: the location was just too remote for most people looking to settle in North America. Unable to sell property enough to cover its costs, the KVP&D had failed by the fall of 1897 just when surveyors began staking the right-of-way of the British Columbia Southern Railway. Without maintenance the dykes eventually succumbed to the rivers persistent attacks and the Flats reverted to Nature, yielding only hay between inundations.
The CPR comes to Creston
Depending on where the CPRs surveyors pounded their stakes, lucky property owners on the Rivers bench stood to make a good return on their investment. Fred Little and his neighbours, John W. and Sarah Dow, were not ones to leave Fate make her choice unguided. They enlisted surveyor Edwd. M. Mallandaine to petition CP and governments, insisting on the suitability of their properties as a townsite, offering the Railway a half-interest in their properties to lay its line on their lands and lay out a townsite. CP accepted, and in the spring of 1898, when the B.C. Southerns track-laying gang worked their way across the Creston bench and eased their steel along the face of the valleys escarpment to drop down to Kootenay Lake, they spiked rails square across the two neighbours lands, laying out the Companys Seventh Siding there-upon. Little subdivided part of his property into a townsite with lots measuring 113 feet by 30 in cardinally aligned blocks bounded by east-west streets and north-south avenues of 60 foot width. To the east of the settlement, nearer the Canyon, the CPR subdivided the bench land that it earned by dint of construction into 40 acre plots. The potential of the district having already been proven, the lots sold quickly.
As Robt. J. Long was constructing the settlements first hotel in the late autumn of 1898and losing many of his furnishings and his entire stock of liquor in the City of Ainsworth disaster at Crawford Bay that November 29ththe locals began discussing the adoption of a name more elegant for their budding community than Seventh Siding, Seven, or Fisher, as the CPR was suggesting. Little proposed the name of a place in Iowa that he had liked. His neighbours and the Railway found it unobjectionable, and thus Creston it became, probably before the areass first teacher, Edith M. Dalby, called local children to classes in the autumn of 1899. By the time Jas. Jerome Hills Kootenay Valley/Bedlington and Nelson Railway arrived in the fall of 1900, the settlement,1 was building itself up smartly on the portion of Littles lot below the tracks, around Longs Creston and John Munroes Queens hotels. Demand for property was so high, in fact, that Little subdivided his land above the tracks, too. William Crawford and Charles Faas moved their general stores to a new building there, and todays downtown was born.
Designated a sectional headquarters by the CPR, Creston grew up to the hoot and wheeze of steam locomotives. The first station, a two-storeyd hip-roofed Crowsnest Pass Branch Second-Class type, went up in 1898 and served until the new station, an utilitarian single level flat-roofed affair, was built in 1949. The old station is long gone, but the new one survives, hiding its ugliness from the Highways view in a hollow north of the elevators.
The Bedlington and Nelson Railway
The CPR enjoyed only two exclusive years in Creston before its great adversary, J.J. Hill, ran rails along the western edge of the settlement, just above the old flood level of the Flats, in 1900. Since the fall of 1895 Hill had been loading his Slocan Mountain ores onto the sternwheelers and barges of the International Navigation and Trading Company and sailing them up the Kootenay River to Bonners Ferry for off-loading onto the GN mainline. The Rivers seasonal unreliability complicated this procedure, and on May 8th, 1897, Hill incorporated the Bedlington and Nelson Railway Company (B&N) in B.C., intending to build a port at the southern end of the Lake and off-load there. He did not incorporate the Kootenai Valley Railway (KoVR) in Washington state until the next year, but by the end of 1898 he had run the KoVRs rails 26 miles along the Kootenay Rivers right bank from his GN mainline at Bonners Ferry to the vanished village of Bedlington, on the Boundary in Washington. There he was forced to wait while the Canadian government pondered the wisdom of granting him another Boundary crossing and Victoria gnashed its teeth over American incursions into its mineral heartland. The requisite paperwork finally signed, stamped and sealed in the spring of 1900, Hill immediately began building from Bedlington northward. He ordered that a station be erected at the bottom of what is now Canyon Street in Creston. Completed to Kuskonook on the Lake, on November 25th, 1900, the B&N/KoVR went into full operation. Creston was bracketed by railroads.
Crestons abundance of railroad didnt last long. On August 1st, 1901, the B&Ns operations north from Creston Junctionnow Wynndelwere suspended. American tariffs on the importation of lead and the falling price of silver cut the demand for Slocan ore and what was shipped south moved on the Nelson and Fort Sheppard. Another nail in the B&Ns coffin was driven by a sister railroad in 1902. The B&Ns second source of income had come from handling coal which had been mined by the Crows Nest Pass Coal Company in which Hill had and an interest. The coal was shipped to Creston on the CPR, transferred onto the B&N/KoVR and hauled south. Using a rival road to transport his freight was naturally anathema to Hill, and he doubtless celebrated the completion of the his Crows Nest Southern from the Crowsnest Pass to his GN mainline at Jennings, Montana, despite the fact that it completed the destruction of the B&Ns utility. Soon a KoVR train into Creston was a rare event. The B&N was formally abandoned on September 11th, 1914, and its steel was picked up sometime during W.W.I. Today the only reminder of its presence in the region is KVR Road, alias highway No. 21, built largely on the old grade.
Though important to Creston, the money paid into the settlements bank accounts by the railroads paled when compared to the income earned through agriculture. It was the fields on the Flats and the orchards of hardy cherries and apples on the benches that under-pinned the economy, and still do.
The losses inflicted by the Cyclone of 1894 drove the Alberta and British Columbia Exploration Company into partnership with the Kootenay Valley Power and Development Company Limited. The destroyed dykes were rebuilt, fields were drained, cleared of brush and planted. Crops were excellent but, their property far from transportation and markets, the companies were unable to sell land quickly enough to satisfy their creditors and, mere months before the arrival of the Railway, the KVP&D failed. Rail service, of course, increased the value of Creston valley property, but free land on the Prairies attracted farming families and much of the Kootenay bottomlands remained wild. Some of these began to be tamed after 1919 when Colonel Fred. Lister was successful in establishing a camp for returning Great War veterans on the benches and bottoms of the Kootenay south of Creston, between the Goat River and the Boundary. Cleared, the Camps lands added many acres to the districts agricultural base. In 1925 the provincial government restarted the clearing process by offering free title of up to 10,000 acres of Flats to anyone who would reclaim it. The Creston Board of Trade responded by organizing the Creston Reclamation Project, presumably to earn land to finance its activities. Progress was slow until the 30s when drought and the incessant Prairie winds drove farming families into the Kootenays from their ruined lands in Alberta and Saskatchewan. 2
By the end of the 1930s more than 30 square miles of bottomlands had been brought under the plough. So productive were they that in 1935 the Midland Pacific Grain Corporation build the first of the Towns three prairie-style grain elevators, a 60,000 bushel structure. The Alberta Wheat Pool erected another in 1936 and there was a third built by 1949, bringing Crestons total storage capacity to 250,000 bushels. By 1991, though, market strategies had changed. That year over 10,000 acres of the nearly 20,000 acres farmed in the area were planted to tame hay and alfalfa, a further thousand were under canola. Elevating facilities were no longer in great demand for the paltry grain harvest, even if the CPR could be persuaded to spat a few grain cars on Crestons siding. The newest elevator, standing apart from the originals and now metal-clad and labelled Sunset Seed Company, sufficed for the neighbourhoods needs. The older pair, a white United Grain Growers and the barn-red Alberta Wheat Growers, were standing empty and awaiting the wreckers last rights. However, they were spared when a local syndicate banded together in 1998 to buy the old landmarks, over-haul the machinery and spruce them up with new paint.
Though the Flats yielded well, they were annually menaced by spring meltwaters. In 1938, writes Helena White, the dykes gave way, 14,500 acres were flooded and repairs ran to $150,000. On the 1st of June, 1948, parts of the original dyking on the old Reclamation Farm properties crumbled. A week later some of the newer embankments in the dyking district succumbed and 16,000 acres ended up under water. Since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the Libby Dam downstream in 1975, however, floods are a thing of the Past. Whereas farmers were formerly forced to commute to their lands from homes built above the high-water mark, now houses are built right on the Flats.
Of course, grain farming and haying are not Crestons agricultural activities: the Highway through Town is lined with fruit stands, attesting to the fact that tree fruits contribute significantly to the local economy. The first apple trees were imported from Ontario and reportedly planted in 1901. Cherries orchards, too, and other fruits had been well established by December 15th, 1924, when the Big Blizzard fell upon southern B.C., wrecking trees. Recovered, the industrys key rôle was formally recognized in 1942 when the Village staged its first annual Blossom Festival.
The Canyon City Lumber Company
Although agriculture was to remain Crestons economic mainstay, other industries besides it and the Railway contributed to the communitys survival. For the first two decades of the Twentieth Century, metal ores were mined at the Alice operation 10 kilometres north of town, and also from the Ottawa, the Ivy, the President and the Elsie Holmes, the latter two managed at one time by the industrious O.J. Wigin, the strawberry king of Wynndel. It was lumbering, however, that ranked as Crestons second most important industry.
The neighbourhoods first sawmill was established by George Bigelow in 1898, and followed around 1903 by another. Both were small operations, catering only to local demand. In 1907, however, came the man whose company would employ Crestonians for many years. C.O. Rodgers erected his first mill at the mouth of the Goat River gorge, logged off a property that he had purchased, subdivided it into 10-acre lots and offered them for sale as fruit farms. Four years later, in 1911, he partnered with D.W. Briggs of Michigan and reorganized his mill operation as the Canyon City Lumber Company. A fire in September of 1923 wiped out the works, and possibly borrowing some capital from the local merchant concern of Burns and Farstad, Rodgers built a mill on a site which was then on the south-eastern outskirts of Creston, hard by the Railway. Generally called Creston Sawmills, the operation began production in January of 1924 and soon included a specialized subsidiary, the Rodgers Box Factory, which catered to the fruit and berry trade. The mill generated its own power, deriving a small income by selling excess to local merchants through the agency of the Creston Power, Light and Telephone Company. This market was lost when West Kootenay Power and Light began supplying the Village on January 1st, 1934, from a run-of-the-river generating station it had established in the Goat River Canyon near the B.C. Southerns big bridge.
Alfred Farstad3 and Donald Burns expanded their business into the lumber trade in 1939 when they bought up Wynndel Limits and Lumbering Company, a local concern. In 1943 the partners reportedly bought out Rodgers, formally renaming the enterprise Creston Sawmills Limited. A year later they set up a new mill at Cranbrook under the banner of Cranbrook Sawmills Limited.
Aerial photos reveal that the Creston operation had become a substantial by the 1950s, straddling the B.C. Southerns tracks, with a couple of sidings loaded with railcars, drying sheds, shops, a conical incinerator and several chimneys obscuring the site with smoke. By then Burns and Farstad had a serious problem to contend with in the form of Spruce Bark Beetle which had been identified in 1949, chewing its way through the partners timber leases. Clearcutting affected areas slowed the beetles progress, but it, and the mountain pine beetle, is still a problem.
In the spring of 1956 Burns and Farstad allied their Cranbrook Sawmills operation with newly formed, Cranbrook-based Crestbrook Timber Limited. Though Farstad became increasingly involved in Crestbrooks affairs, the partners kept their Creston company independent, expanding it into southern Alberta where it acquired timber rights and set up Fort MacLeod Plywood Lumber Limited in an old hanger at that Alberta town. In 1964, however, it became clear that Crestbrook would be the big player in the region and the partners allowed it to buy a significant stake in Creston Sawmills. In June of the next year, complete amalgamation was achieved under Crestbrooks banner with V.C. (Vic) Brown and Alf Farstad president and VP, respectively.
The Creston mill worked steadily through the 60s and 70s. Timber became increasingly hard to come by in the Creston area and Crestbrook chose to let the old plant wear itself out. In November of 1981 operations were suspended and the old Rodgers sawmill torn down. Surviving on the site were the veneer and planer mills which continued working until mounting losses dictated their closing on July 12th, 1991. The buildings were soon demolished.
With the sawmills closing, the Railway cut back its presence in Creston, closing its station in 1982. In 1990 it levelled all of its structures remaining around the old Mill site and pulled up all but its mainline, one siding, and the brewery spur. Only a huge puddled patch of weeds bam in the middle of town remained, studded with massive hunks of concrete, the haunt of feral cats and small beings humming their little wild lives in the weeds and the mud. Within the decade, however, the concrete disappeared and the property, in 1999 is rapidly in-filling. On one corner has arisen the campus of the College of the Rockies; nearby, a new retirement community has room to grow, and a shopping mall is being assembled. Now in the guise of the Kootenay Valley Railway, the CPR rumbles but one daily freight both ways through Town.
The establishment of a thriving sawmill in the area brought gave Crestons economy a much-needed boost and was responsible in part for attracting a branch of the Bank of Commerce which opened in 1907. According to Helena White, J.J. Atherton began publishing The Creston Review in 1908, and a Board of Trade under the chairmanship of Edwd. Mallandaine was organized. That year the Goat Mountain Waterworks freed the settlement from reliance on water waggoned in from Wynndel. In 1911 Superior School was built and opened for classes. Having contributed its fair share of youngsters to the slaughter of the mid-teens, Creston deserved the injection of federal capital that came with the establishment of Camp Lister in 1919. On May 14th, 1924, Creston became a village.
The Imperial Bank Heist
Floods and fires aside, according to John Nadler in The Great Creston Bank Robbery (Canadian West, Vol. 7, No. 4, 1991), the most exciting episode in Crestons history began at around 2:30 in the afternoon on Tuesday, October 20, 1925, when John Ward and an unidentified accomplice pushed through the doors of the Imperial Bank of Commerce on the south side of Canyon Street and, jerking out revolvers, demanded all the cash in the vault. Glancing up from his desk, C.W. Allan, the manager, was impressed. A feisty veteran of the Great War, though, Allan immediately seized his own revolver and, as staff and customers dove for cover, let fly. Six seconds and eighteen shots later, Allan, Ward and X stood facing each other through the smoke, guns empty. Amazingly, no-one had been hit in the fusillade. Better prepared than Allan, the robbers pulled out their back-up weapons and iterated their demand. Wise as well as gutsy, Allan handed over $7,500 and the gunmen leapt through a side window and made off. Though they had thought to equip themselves with firepower aplenty, Ward and associate had not thought out a get-away plan and ended the day running through the orchards ducking bullets flung by posses of excited locals. Exhausted and hungry, Ward was captured the next afternoon, but X disappeared with $4,000 of the loot and was heard from never again. Creston heard from Ward again, though. Sometime in 1951, long after he had served the eight years and endured the 20 lashes meted out to him by Nelson Judge J.A. Florin on November 1st, 1925, Ward returned to the scene of his crime. With no other intention than to reminisce, he hung out for an afternoon in Wes Eddys barber shop, talking and smoking, and then followed X into Crestons history.
After 32 years of service, R.J. Longs Creston Hotel burned in 1930, ushering in the misery of the Depression. It wasnt replaced until January of 1949 when the faintly art-deco Kootenay Hotel opened on Canyon Street up town. A year and a half earlier, in 1947, Canyon had been widened to accommodate the new Crowsnest Highway, all its fronting buildings moved ten feet back on their properties. That year as well a cannery opened to assist Creston Packers, Limited, in processing several of the valleys crops, but by 1951 all lines had been discontinued save Creston Maid apple juice.
Creston has an airfield, south of Town on the far side of the Goat River in the Lister district.4 In 1960 the federal Department of Transport hinted that it might expend $2 million to expand the Creston strip into a full-sized regional airport. It didnt happen; the facility was built at Cranbrook. Dealing with its disappointment, Creston incorporated itself as a Town on January 1st, 1966.
Camping at Scotties puts one right across Erickson Street from the Columbia Brewery, a Labatt Breweries of Canada beer factory which ejects 150 million bottles and cans a year, most of it Kokanee lager.
The Kokanee plant traces its ancestry back to the brew-house at Fort Steele that Adolf Mutz, G.H. Scott and Fritz Sick erected in 1898, the first in the East Kootenays. When the Fort withered the partners moved their operation to the coal mining town of Fernie east, in the Elk River valley. Lost to the great Fernie fire of 1908 and rebuilt, by 1950 the Fernie brewery was one of the four breweries in the Kootenays, the other three being at Cranbrook, Trail and Nelson. In that year R.D. Barnes of Nelson and A.D. Lauder of Vancouver formed Interior Breweries Company by merging their Brewery Investments Limited with Fernie Brewing Company Limited and its subsidiaries, and Cranbrook Brewing Company Limited and Kootenay Breweries Limited with its operations in Nelson and Trail. Combined output; 70,000 barrels per year. Toward the end of the 50s Interior decided to build a new brewery in a central location, at Creston, and when it began pumping out product in 1960, the other facilities were retired. With Fernie Lager, Columbia Malt Liquor, Kokanee Pilsner and Kootenay Pale Ale, Interior strove to hold the big brewers at bay through the 1960s, promoting itself as BCs Grand Ol Mountain Brewery. Come 1970 the company was loosing market share and was embroiled with Pepsi Cola, the bottlers of Mountain Dew, over the name of Interiors new brand, Mountain Brew. His company needing help, on January 1st, 1970, president E.R. McFarland turned over his office to a hot-shot from down East, H.W. Blakley. Believing that Interior either had to grow big or perish, Blakley flung it into debt to double output during the next two years and aimed at markets beyond the Kootenays by hiring a slick Lower Mainland ad agency. To reflect this change in focus he relocated his headquarters to Vancouver in 1972 and changed the companys name to Columbia Brewing Company, Limited. His moves got the attention of the big players, and on July 4th, 1974, John Labatt Limited announced that its subsidiary, Labatt Breweries of British Columbia Limited, had acquired 84% of Columbia. Though it tries to maintain the facade of individuality, in reality Columbia now brews your average Canadian 5% lager.
Out of Creston
Six or seven curvy blocks north on the Highway from downtown, at Devon Street overlooking the triumvirate of diminutive classic-style grain elevators of Piper Farms Limited, is the sprawling Stone House regional museum. Its core rooms constructed in the early 1950s by mason Rudolph Schultz as his home, it was acquired by the Historical Society in 1982 and converted to house Crestons archives and some 3,000 of the Societys best artefacts. Little historical buildings and the hardier artefacts tough it out in the garden with the stripped hulk of old narrow-gauge locomotive, No. 30, which the CPR dumped into Kootenay Lake by Procter when it had finished laying the west shore link in 1930.
At the Museum visitors can get a map of paths on the valley-bottom dykes that will lead them by the scenic route to the Wildlife Centre as described by Tanna Patterson-Z in her Exploring the Creston Valley (Waterwheel Press, Vancouver, 1989). The few surviving Aboriginal petroglyphs hiding in the heights around townindeed, all around the Lakeare out-of-bounds to all but accredited archæologists who have pre-arranged their visits with the Museum and the local Ktunaxa band who will supply a guide to these delicate treasures.
Through a sequence of abrupt right angle turns from downtown, No. 3 sheds its Canyon Street appellation and picks its way along property lines east out Creston. Passing the Wayside Garden and Arboretum, and fruit stands in numbers to rival those of Keremeos, the Highway slips through the unicorporated community of Ericksonthe wild turkey capital of B.C.past the orchard-sheltered, swimming-pooled Kozy Tent and Trailer Park and, replacing its shoulders with a bike-imperilling narrow strip of semi-compacted sand, plunges into the throat of the Goat River canyon. The woods hedge the Highway as it snakes north-eastward a couple of kilometres over a slight rise and down to Littlejoes Campground nestled in the riverside shade. Here railroad buffs turn right on Canyon-Lister Road and roll down a kilometre or so into the spectacular little gorge to look at the 73 metre long Goat River Bridge, its three black steel spans firmly footed on fortification sized concrete piers and abutments which hold them 165 feet above the frantic Goat.